Web campaigns get more and more complex combining 3D, movies and animations into a rich immersive experience. Network and processor speeds are constantly increasing. Still, the sound on many high profile productions often consists of one ambient sound and some spot effects, the sounds are abruptly cut off when navigating, parts are silent without any apparent reason. The sound track feels simplified, unrefined, half-done.
We all know what good music and sound post production can do. Just watch a good movie, a drama, comedy, action, thriller or any other genre. The skills and experience are there. Why does not the web sound as good? Are the skills not transferable to the web?
Of course there are huge differences between movie and web production. The focus here is only on the differences from a music and sound perspective.
The sound track for a movie can be created solely on the basis of what sounds best and the finished result will always sound the same.
Music and sound for web must be designed with the technical limitations of the web in mind: download times, CPUs, Flash itself. Understanding what is complicated and what is not from a coding perspective must also affect the design. The possibilities of the media with realtime interaction should also be a part of the picture.
Audio guys normally don't have this competence which means that the music and sound produced will be far from optimal. So what happens? People on the world's best production companies are still surfing sound FX databases and making synth drones, since it is so much easier to do it yourself.
But will the final result be as good? Probably not.
The work process
Sound post production for a movie is done while watching the movie on the screen, which makes it possible to judge if it works or not on the spot. Score music is done the same way.
Doing music and sound for web normally means working in the dark. The standard process is that the web production company writes a list of all sound and music parts that has to be produced. This has to be done quite early in the process, often before you can see anything on the screen. The music and sound is produced and delivered according to specification. Visuals and functions are for obvious reasons prioritized in the development process, which means that the music and sound are added the last couple of days before the site goes live. By then new functions are added and others removed, timing and flows are changed etc which means that the delivery does not fit the need. Time is short and the budget is tight...
So even if the ambitions were high the end result is a compromise.
And it's getting worse. Sites are becoming larger and more advanced all the time and the complexity of the projects increases exponentially.
Being ambitious about music and sound does not pay off well. More sound means more time spent on instructing music and sound producers. The management of the increasing number of sound files in different versions becomes a problem in itself. Controlling several layers of sound when the user starts clicking around generates a lot of code, which means more bugs and more testing, just when you need it the least.
Video is great for all the things that's still not possible to render at runtime, but it also adds a new beautiful process to the management palette: create a clip, send clip to sound producer, add sound and master it, send sound file to web production company, add file to master clip, export as .flv, add to dev site. Which has to be repeated every time a clip is altered or the sound is changed. Not to mention the problems controlling levels, transitions, timbre etc when mixing with other sound elements.
And the evolution will continue regarding the visuals and functions. And the sound will follow just a step behind. Together with a severe management and development headache...
Getting on top of it
The web is a complex medium that requires a lot from those involved. The expectations and complexity will only increase. If we want to raise the level of music and sound on the web to that of movies we need to find ways to handle these challenges.
This is the driving force behind DinahMoe. DinahMoe combines competence in web, sound and music production in the same company. This makes it possible to work in a creative way with the end result in mind through the whole process. A work process has been developed where the web production company does not have to handle sound at all, neither as files or in the code. The sound post production is done in parallel with and independent of the programming of the site. The work process makes it possible to handle larger and more complex sound productions than ever before....
DinahMoe might be the first company working this way, we actually don't know, but we are certainly not the last. The solutions might differ but the goal is the same: to simplify handling of audio for the web and to create completely new possibilities.
...so the question is: how are we going to use all these possibilities?
The future is very cloudy to be honest. We at DinahMoe started getting our act together just six months ago, and we are still in the process of learning what the web should sound like. I do have some ideas though where it might be good to start digging.
The web is experienced linearly
The web is a non-linear medium where user interaction etc creates the final result at runtime. Deciding what music and sound are needed are most often based on the site map and flow charts with their little squarish boxes. Each box gets its own sound like it was a static 0bject. But these boxes are far from the user experience, where a story unfolds in real time. The user experience is very much a linear experience. What does that mean for music and sound? That we have to focus on the flow as if it was a film, how the sound elements should enter the stage and evolve over time.
Often several sound elements are mixed together in order to minimize file sizes and simplify sound control. But this must by definition create a static sound track. By keeping the elements separated and controlling them independently we can create much more organic and dynamic sound track that dramatizes, emphasizes, comments the user's linear experience. Like in a movie.
The web is adaptive
If movies are a reference for the richness and quality of music and sound of the future web, computer games are a starting point for interactivity and adaptivity.
At any given time there are data in the application that could be used to control music and sound. Input devices - mouse, keyboard, camera, microphone - all can be used to create a more immersive, dynamic, organic experience.
It might be tempting to reduce this to a cool feature that is the first thing to be cut in the budget. But actually it does not have to be a question about money as much as learning to use the medium. Each new tool takes years before its real potential starts to get untapped. The web has evolved enormously the last 15 years and we are still in its infancy. Interactivity and adaptivity will eventually become a natural part of the toolbox. Until then, just keep it in mind and try to include it in every project.
The web is limited/unlimited
Being ambitious will get you into problems. Fast. The web is very clear: you can't do this, you can't do that. But we have to get better at playing with these limitations. A loop is boring, a dynamically generated ambience done right is much more fun. Repeating the same sound again and again is annoying, to let sounds change over time is way cooler.
Once again, this is not a cool effect that you do just once and you're done. For every music part, for every sound we use we should think how we can make it more interesting. Never stop making the web a more natural, organic, interesting, fun place to be.
The web needs audio POST production
There are very good reasons why things are done in a specific way. Sometimes the sound should be done before the visuals, more often the end result gets better the opposite way around. You just don't do the sound track to a movie before it is done, right?
The web is so young so I think time will solve it all. But in the mean time, let's just try our best to get a little more POST in the process, OK?
About the author, Johan Belin
Johan Belin is founder and Creative Director at DinahMoe AB. In 1989 he founded PLOP Production, focusing on music and sound production for commercials, where he was active as Director, Creative and music producer until 2000. During the years 2000-2007 he was the driving force behind several IT concepts and companies which gave him invaluable experience in system and application development, web technologies, mobile development, complex project management etc.
About DinahMoe AB
DinahMoe AB is a music and sound production company focusing on the web. Services include all stages from pre to post production. The company was founded in Stockholm, Sweden in February 2008 but has already worked with some of the best web production companies in the world, among them Acne Digital, B-Reel, Perfect Fools. DinahMoe's goal is to constantly raise the bar and set new standards for audio on the web.